8 Surprising Benefits Indoor Rowing Machines Have on Your Body

The Surprising Benefits Indoor Rowing Machines Have on Your Body

As an athlete, you’re constantly looking for new ways to find variety in the exercises you use and maximize your time in training. The rowing machine is a versatile tool that translates to benefits and improvements in a wide variety of your athletic abilities.

This article covers everything you need to know about what muscles you’re working when using a rowing machine, when each muscle activates throughout the four rowing phases, as well as the common benefits (and a few little-known benefits) that rowing can give you.

If you’re looking to add an indoor rower to your home gym, take a look at our recent article on the best indoor rowing machines you can have delivered right to your doorstep.

The Overlooked Rowing Machine for Athletic Development

Finding exercises that force nearly every muscle in the body to work in harmony is the holy grail for balancing out your athletic development. Usually tucked away neatly in the gym corner, the rowing machine is a phenomenal tool for simultaneously building endurance and solid postural cohesion. 

Aside from its utility as a low impact training tool that requires immense aerobic and muscle endurance (which we’ll cover in detail in the second half of this article), its benefits of creating a strong posture by placing high demand on the upper and lower back are equally valuable.

We unfortunately live in a world that has us slouched and hunched over for most of the day. And because of that, one of the most common muscle imbalances is a weak upper back that’s pulled forward by overdeveloped and shortened muscles of the chest.

As simple as it might sound, good posture is what creates muscular and skeletal balance in your body. It’s what both protects you from injury and unleashes your athletic potential through proper range of motion.

The rowing machine works nearly the entire array of muscles in the upper and lower body in both the anterior and posterior planes. 

Below is a list of the primary muscle groups activated during the four phases of the row’s stroke. For a list that covers over 15 different muscles in your body, it’s shocking that it’s not even the complete list – many secondary muscle groups also come into play to support the main muscles that are firing throughout each phase.

What Muscles Does the Rowing Machine Work:

  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Calves
  • Trapezius
  • Rear/Posterior Deltoids
  • Side/Medial Deltoids
  • Front/Anterior Deltoids
  • Lats (Latissimus Dorsi)
  • Triceps
  • Biceps
  • Forearms/Wrist Flexion/Hands
  • Abdominals
  • Obliques
  • Psoas/Hip Flexors/Iliacus

What Muscles Activate During Each Rowing Stroke Phase

There are four phases of the rowing stroke: Catch, Drive, Finish, and Recovery. We’ll break it down with some ‘watered-down’ kinesiology and biomechanics so you can paint the picture in your mind of how all these different muscle systems work together for one exercise.

During the Catch phase: Your back relaxes, the psoas and iliacus jump into action to flex the pelvis and hips. Then, the abdominals flex your torso forward as your triceps work to extend your elbows. 

During the Drive Phase: The first half of the drive requires maximum effort from the lower body. Your quadriceps fire to extend the knee, propelling your body backward. Then, all of the muscles of the shoulder contract and are kept in proper motion by the trapezius. The stabilizing muscles around the lower back activate to keep your body in alignment. 

As you continue through the leg’s extension, the glutes and hamstrings contract to extend your hips, and then your biceps and forearms begin to pull your elbows backward. The lats and pecs take care of the internal rotation as you pull your arms through to the full extension of the drive, while your trapezius and rear delts take care of the rest. 

During the Recovery Phase: The triceps push your arms forward until they’re at full extension. Your front delts and biceps contract as you pass your arms over your extended knees. Finally, the abdominals flex your torso forward once again to move your body back to the catch phase of the row.

If you really want to dive into the kinesiology in much greater detail than that, check out this paper published by the Strength and Conditioning Journal on the full kinesiology of the rowing stroke.

Benefits of the Rowing Machine

Whether there’s a rowing machine at your local gym or you have your own personal indoor rower at home, there’s a broad range of benefits that rowing machines provide for balancing out your athletic development. Let’s further explore the entire spectrum of benefits that the rowing machine provides.

1.) Full Body Activation

Covered in length in the first half of the article, it’s not a surprise to find full body activation at the top of the list of benefits. The rowing exercise is a movement that requires a coordinated effort from nearly 90% of the muscle groups in your entire body. Strengthening and building a mind-body connection between that many muscle groups in one movement translates to a wealth of benefits in other areas of your general athleticism. 

2.) Improves Aerobic and Cardiovascular Endurance

Because of its high energy demands, rowing does a great job of elevating heart rate, respiration and raising blood flow throughout the body. Since you can vary the intensity drastically, you can do training sessions that last long enough to trigger aerobic and cardiovascular endurance improvements. 

Just like your longer runs, your body responds by your heart pumping more efficiently, improving blood volume and delivery systems, and lowers your resting heart rate. 

3.) Improves Muscular Endurance 

Your muscular endurance is the ability of your muscles to withstand repeated contractions for extended periods of time. The great thing about rowing is how many different muscle groups you’re engaging throughout the exercise. So unlike something like cycling, which targets a smaller number of specific muscle groups, you are building muscular endurance over a broader range of muscle groups simultaneously. 

Not only is it an excellent way to be efficient with your time. It is also a perfect exercise to build muscular endurance in muscle groups that translate into other athletic activities.

For a simple example, improvements in the endurance of your legs will transfer to your running capacity, and the improved endurance of your back could transfer to improvements in your swimming. 

4.) Improves Posture

Good posture is essential to your body’s ability to move as an athlete. If you’ve dealt with muscle imbalances in the past, you know firsthand how it can impair proper mobility and increase your risk of injury. 

One of the most common muscle imbalances among athletes is an over-developed chest and under-developed upper back that pulls the shoulders forward and tightens the chest.

Rowing does an excellent job of strengthening the muscles in the upper back and deltoids that pull your shoulders back, re-aligning your body back into a proper posture. 

5.) Provides Low Impact Exercise

Running (even walking) has the built-in downside of repetitive impact with every stride. Every time you go out for a long run, it adds up, and your risk of sustaining an injury also adds up. 

Low impact exercises like rowing provide an alternative use to balance out your training. You still get an excellent training session that builds both cardiovascular and muscular endurance, all while taking a quick break from the repetitive impact on your body.

6.) Provides High Degree of Workout Variability

One of the most valuable aspects of training on a rowing machine is your ability to do a wide variety of workouts with drastically different intensities and purposes. 

You can hop on the rower and keep a leisurely pace for an extended period of time to build endurance. Or you can ramp up the intensity with a high-powered HIIT training session. 

Whatever cardio training outcome you’re looking for, you’re likely to find a way to work it in on the rowing machine.

7.) Improves Focus and Mental Resilience

Much like any cardiovascular endurance training style that requires extended periods of repetitive motion, you quickly drop into a near meditative state when you’re rowing. 

What sets the rowing machine apart is that there are fewer variables to be distracted by. You’re not scanning ahead for foot placement or keeping an eye out for cars in your path while you’re on your bike. 

When you’re on the rower, all you have to focus on is your breathing and perfecting one motion – over and over again. Combined with fighting fatigue, you have a perfect environment for focusing your mind to build mental resilience.  

8.) Excellent Warmup Exercise Before Training

Since rowing engages an entire spectrum of different muscle groups, and you can dial back the intensity to prevent the onset of fatigue, it makes for an excellent choice of warmup before nearly any workout.

Final Thoughts on Indoor Rowing Machines:

The rowing machine is a dynamic tool you can work in to assist nearly any athletic or fitness goal. If you’re looking to outfit your home gym with an indoor rowing machine, we’ll leave a few links below to some rowers that you can find right on Amazon.

If you’re looking for ways to help fix some of the muscle imbalances we talked about in this post, you might be interested in checking out our article on Crossover Symmetry for developing a strong, balanced back and shoulders. And the Iron Neck for strengthening the complex system of hard-to-train muscles in the neck.

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